Is Kazakhstan Experiencing Its Own ‘Arab Spring’ Moment?

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Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters

Kazakhstan's opposition leader Amirzhan Kosanov, secretary-general of the Social Democrats, gestures before a rally in Almaty, Jan. 28, 2012. Kazakh opposition leaders called on Saturday for the release of colleagues jailed on charges of inciting riots in an oil town and said the authorities should conduct a transparent investigation into the Central Asian state's deadliest violence in decades

An unusual thing happened over the weekend in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan and the vast Central Asian country’s major commercial city: roughly 500 people gathered in a protest. They called for democratic change in a state that has been ruled by the same man ever since its independence in 1991, when it emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. The activists decried recent parliamentary elections where the country’s political opposition was almost entirely frozen out. Authorities seemed to allow the protest to go on, but their response thereafter has been swift; three prominent dissidents were arrested and thrown in jail.

For two decades, the regime of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, buoyed by the wealth of the country’s enormous oil and natural gas reserves, has brooked little dissent. But now it faces one of its more considerable tests. In December, striking workers in the western oil town of Zhanaozen clashed with security forces. The resulting crackdown led to some of the worst violence witnessed in the country’s short history, leaving 17 people dead. New York City–based Human Rights Watch alleges some protesters were tortured and beaten while in police custody, which may have resulted in unconfirmed deaths. What began as economic protests over wages paid by a state company has taken on a starkly political dimension. While making an effort to investigate reports of police brutality and local administrative failures in Zhanaozen, the Nazarbayev regime has also pointed the finger at pro-democracy elements in civil society, the media and politics as subversive agents potentially stirring up unrest. The recent arrests follow numerous incidents of journalists and critics of the government being hauled in for interrogation.

(READ: Democracy, Kazakh Style — Where the Challenger Votes for the Incumbent)

Tensions have only been heightened in the aftermath of parliamentary elections earlier this month. Nazarbayev, who won re-election as President last April with virtually 100% of the vote (one of his challengers even cast a ballot for the strongman-incumbent), and others in the Kazakh leadership champion their model of supposed multiparty democracy. But most observers consider it a rigged sham: Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party won some 81% of the vote; two other progovernment parties carried just a handful of parliamentary seats. Some reports claim ballot boxes were stuffed in favor of progovernment candidates, while observers representing the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a U.N.-affiliated organization aimed at bolstering fledgling democracies in the post-Soviet world, claimed the polls “did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections.” Real pluralist politics seems years, perhaps decades, away in Kazakhstan as it does throughout much of Central Asia, a region that, with the exception of tiny Kyrgyzstan, still remains in thrall to the diktat of post-Soviet apparatchiks.

Nazarbayev has styled himself as a sort of magnanimous patriarch of the nation, a leader whose firm guidance is essential for the stability of this complex, multiethnic, geopolitically strategic and resource-rich nation of 17 million people. That narrative has been aided over the years by Kazakhstan’s remarkable petro-wealth, a booming industry that has spawned astonishing visions like the city of Astana, Nazarbayev’s new capital upon the steppe. The New York Times reports that the government will now increase workers’ wages in restive Zhanaozen and commit some $300 million in investment to that city alone.

Flashing cash around is ever a useful tactic to assure quiescence. But it may no longer do the trick. There is a hunger for political change across the region, fueled further by the nominal successes of uprisings further west in the Arab world. Granted, Kazakhstan and its poorer Central Asian neighbors may be home to vastly different societies than those in open rebellion in the Middle East. But a growing clamor for reform, increased international scrutiny and even the specter of more extremist, militant violence unsettling the country could all lead to marked political change in the future. Central Asia analyst Joshua Foust writes:

Most of the striking oil workers have accepted new jobs, going along with the same bargain Nazarbayev has promised his country the last two decades: forget about liberty or freedom or speech, and in return I’ll keep you employed. It’s kind of worked so far, but as the Zhanaozen protests (and the initial hints of terrorism) show, that bargain is clearly beginning to fray.

One wonders, then, whether Nazarbayev may ever have to make the same zero-sum calculations of authoritarian demagogues in Tripoli and Damascus — or whether he’ll have the wisdom to avoid such a moment of crisis.